By Patrick B. McGuigan
State Rep. T. W. Shannon became the highest-ranking elected official of African-American descent in Oklahoma history this week. In the normal course of a week when the organizational structure of the Legislature took final form, a framework for the 2013 session emerged.
After his formal election as Speaker of the state House, the Lawton Republican, also a member of the Chickasaw Nation, promised to pursue a conservative policy agenda, including an Oklahoma brand of federalism in the form of push back against directives from Washington, D.C.
Along with Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, Shannon is expected to lead efforts to reform workers compensation, push for some version of tax relief, decide how to pay for repairs to the state Capitol, and scale back the $1.7 billion in increased spending that state agencies say they need — in a fiscal year when tax revenue growth will amount to around $200 million.
“I am humbled by the confidence of my peers to lead our state legislature and promote a pro-family, low tax, economic growth agenda,” Shannon said. “We were sent here by the people of Oklahoma to implement the type of government that will create jobs, reduce burdensome regulations on businesses, expand individual freedom and push back against a federal government that habitually oversteps its bounds set forth by the Constitution.”
Speaker Shannon and the Senate President pro temp appear on the same wavelength when it comes to the session’s priorities, with both consistently listing workers compensation changes as their top policy objective.
The Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce also describes workers comp as its top issue for this year, bolstering odds there will be proactive legislation of one form or another. Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Chamber, insists workers comp costs are “the biggest obstacle” the state’s businesses now face.
The push for workers comp reform comes in the wake of several years of cumulative reforms of the state’s tort litigation, with the most significant steps taken since the GOP took control of both houses of the Legislature.
Republicans want to create an administrative alternative to the state’s litigation-centered workers comp system, and perhaps provide an “opt out” for self-insured businesses.
The Chamber’s intention to protect “key economic development programs” may make it difficult to achieve tax relief, as those programs are financed by exemptions, credits and direct paybacks to qualifying businesses. In the 2011-12 session, the Chamber played a key role in fighting bipartisan efforts to tighten the state’s incentives.
For this year, the Chamber said in a press release it will oppose changes in several programs “that have recently fallen under increased legislative scrutiny, such as the new jobs/investment tax credit and the historical building rehabilitation tax credit.”
Despite recent history and the “epic fail” of tax reduction in 2012, legislative leaders assert this will be the year for at least modest tax reduction.
In this, they echo state Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, who told The City Sentinel last month there would likely be a tax reduction proposal from the governor – but “not as detailed or broad” as what was put on the table in 2012. Tax cut efforts fell apart in the last three days of last year’s session.
In his first speech after winning the top House position, Speaker Shannon repeated a federalist theme that has punctuated his speeches in recent years. He promised to fight U.S. government intrusions into state policymaking prerogatives, including in health care.
Shannon and Bingman strongly support Gov. Mary Fallin’s intention to avoid establishment of a state-based health insurance exchange, as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act, and her opposition to the Medicaid expansion included within what she and other critics still call “ObamaCare.”
The decaying condition of the state Capitol Building exterior, and long-delayed interior maintenance, will likely be addressed this year, either through a hefty bond issue or a “pay-as-you-go” approach that could eat up much of the increased revenue Secretary Doerflinger’s staff anticipates.
Other possible bond issues include financing to complete an Indian Cultural Center on the Oklahoma River and a “Pop Culture” museum in Tulsa.
Water policy is rarely listed as a formal priority for 2013, but events beyond the Capitol dome could interrupt discussion of all the listed priorities. The issue is particularly volatile, as a divisive federal lawsuit pits the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes (second and third largest, respectively, of the state’s Indian Nations) against both the state and the planned water use strategies of Oklahoma City.
A task force, empowered by a federal district judge, has conducted secret negotiations for several months, with little or no information available to the news media or the general public.
On a parallel track, Tarrant County, Texas (the Dallas-Forth Worth metroplex) has gained U.S. Supreme Court review of its lawsuit designed to force water sales to the Lone Star State from the Red River watershed in Oklahoma.
Another “wild card” issue could be follow-up on implementation of the historic Justice Reinvestment Act, a broad policy shift designed to move the state away from its “first in the nation” incarceration rates toward alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent crimes.
In a year of challenged budgeting, pressures to increase pay for Corrections Department employees, along with broader budget stress, could impede appropriations of the estimated $5 million to finance start-up costs for the reinvestment programs.
Democrats are weaker than at any other point in state history, outnumbered in the House 72-29, and in the Senate 36-12. However, the minority caucus proved an effective force the past two years, especially when allied with dissenting Republicans. That usually came on procedural matters, but also on a handful of substantive policy or budget votes.
While leaving Republicans firmly in charge, Speaker Shannon has announced appointment of three minority caucus vice-chairmen to standing committees, a gesture Democrats applauded.
Democratic House Leader Scott Inman of Del City, first elected the same year as Shannon, said he hopes to work “productively … as we cast off the fringe elements that have held our legislature hostage in recent years.”
The stage is set, or least the framework established, for the session, which opens with Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 4. Despite the powerful Republican majorities, an often-fractious caucus assures there is no way confidently to predict what the final legislative product will look like come “sine die” adjournment on May 31.
The only thing fully predictable is that the unpredictable will happen — and that will impact the plans of both leadership and the rank-and-file.